Underground Productions - Holding the Man

‘Holding the Man’ // Underground Productions

‘Holding the Man’ was enduring.

‘Holding the Man’ is an incredibly poignant play. Not only is the verbatim-styled content saturated with true emotion, but the story’s relevance in today’s society is more important than ever before – especially with our strengthened acceptance of LGBITQ+ communities. Adapted from Tim Conigrave’s original memoir (of the same name), the production is an honest representation of courage amongst rejection, and a retelling of a queer experience during the AIDS crisis.

As a university ensemble, Underground Productions have made a stellar choice in opening their 2019 season with an enduring and emotional piece. The script has allowed actors to experience a range of characters, diversity, and challenges; and achieve an incredible payoff with an audience who willingly embarked on this emotional journey.

Having experienced some of his previous work, it’s very evident that Bradley Chapman has a knack for stylised, professional direction. With ‘Holding the Man’, Chapman’s attention to detail created varied spaces from simple props.  Ably assisted by Co-Director, Lachlan Hoy, the partnership utilised the large stage of the Schonell Theatre to the nth degree.

Although a rather intimate play, a handful of actors were challenged to shift about the vast stage; working like a cogwheel, constantly moving around the space. The action was fluid – positions changed frequently and characters had a purpose. When moments intensified, Chapman and Hoy found stillness and hit pause, which led to plot points (and reality) really settling in. This seamless integration of pace allowed the directing-duo to successfully modulate a story that transitioned from a comic first half to a sombre second.

Another quirky element added to the piece was the use of formulated hues to create significance. Actors donned red and black costumes – a nice touch that symbolised the lead characters favourite colours and football team. The set itself was basic but worked on a number of levels. Four wooden structures were moved to create different settings – from desks in a school classroom to bars at a queer nightclub, to hospital beds and doctors waiting rooms. The audience knew exactly where we were at that time.  This was also facilitated by a large football scoreboard that flicked through years and indicated when the events being told were happening. Props to whoever designed this aspect (not listed in the programme) as it aided in many ways. Also, a puppetry component was mentioned, but sadly not realised onstage.

In the performance aspect, the role of Tim Conigrave can be extremely ambitious for any young actor to realise. Drew Buchanan’s somewhat flamboyant portrayal acquired a crusading earnestness. At times, connection to emotion lacked, however, Buchanan was energetic, committed and moved through the storyline with ease.

On the other side of the relationship, Zachary Crisan as John Caleo was more enigmatic and straight in comparison. Crisan’s performance conveyed shyness and John’s inherent fidelity. He was soft, raw and gave a realistic delivery of his characters sickness.

Together, Buchanan and Crisan played scenes with empathy and adoration; with some moments lost due to the emotional complexity of the subject matter – a difficult feat for any actor to fully deliver with such an honest text. Chemistry needed to be intensified. As an audience, we should have felt the gravity of the situation, however, some themes were swallowed within the auditorium and not properly ingested. We had moments where the content really translated and moments where it lagged.

One of the more fascinating but underexplored elements of the story was John’s innate conservatism – the pair joke about being an “old married couple” even as Tim strays from monogamy. If the structure was complex and the themes ambitious, what endured here is the accumulation of human moments, imperfect but loving, that defined these two men’s love beyond any label.

Making up the ensemble were four additional actors – Hannah Boyd, Peter Carroll, Kurtis Laing and Samantha Turk – who supported the leads and formed a variety of different roles. Their task was complex but mastered skillfully through a variety of costumes, wigs, accents and demeanours. At times, Carroll easily stole the spotlight in scenes with his appliance impersonation or as Julia’s mother. He brought an energy to each role that filled the auditorium. Turk was also a standout with her impersonations, and a highlight to watch on stage. Boyd brought sincere delivery to her work, and Laing presented one of the most tender moments of the play, where his university character finds an interest in Tim.

Lighting Designer and Operator, Alexandra Cook has lovingly crafted worlds with a clever lighting scheme that illuminated an entire life’s journey. One of the highlights with the show was a scene where the “five boys” attend a sleepover and try to outdo each other in a range of ways. The lighting perfectly framed the action, with shadowing enough to restrict an audience from seeing what they weren’t supposed to.  It was hilariously played out.

‘Holding the Man’ spans a lifetime and easily captures moments of joy and heartbreak, all whilst encompassing a coming of age tale. The ending is no small thing.  The story is a mountain to climb, past breathless elation and wounding agony. Underground Productions have climbed this hill with relish, and evident style.

‘Holding the Man’ performs until Saturday, 2 March 2019. Get your tickets at https://www.trybooking.com/book/event?eid=458299.

Disclaimer: Cast / Production Members working on this show also work for Theatre Haus, but rest assured, we always take steps to ensure our reviews maintain their integrity and are free from bias. 

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